Cuba trade pushed in D.C.

U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford's legislation easing trade restrictions with Cuba could pass the House of Representatives if lawmakers were allowed to vote on it, a fellow congressman said Thursday.

U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., who wants to end the Cuban embargo, has lined up 14 Republican co-sponsors for his legislation. But Crawford's bill, which focuses on agricultural trade, has 42 Republican co-sponsors, Emmer noted.

Known as the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act, H.R. 525 would allow farmers to extend credit to customers in Cuba. It would also enable Americans to invest in nongovernmental agricultural enterprises there.

"We've got great bipartisan support. There's a majority of the people that actually favor changing this policy. Unfortunately, a very small group within Congress still has the loudest voice. We're trying to change that," Emmer said.

"I think Rick's [legislation] is actually possible today. ... I think now is the time," Emmer said. "The question is whether our leadership will have the political will, in light of all the other things that are going on, to help us move it forward."

Emmer made his comments Thursday at a Cuba trade roundtable titled "Fostering Bilateral Agricultural and Economic Capabilities."

He was joined by Crawford, a Republican from Jonesboro. U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., were also panelists.

The event was held at the law firm of McDermott, Will & Emery. Engage Cuba, a coalition of businesses and groups that wants the embargo lifted, also participated.

After the end of the Cuban revolution and the rise to power of Fidel Castro in 1959, relations between the U.S. and its southern neighbor quickly soured.

The United States placed a number of economic sanctions on Cuba, the toughest coming in 1962. Many of the restrictions remain in place today, more than 18 months after Castro's death. The revolutionary's political successor, Raul Castro, stepped down as president in April after a decade in office.

Since his election to Congress in 2010, Crawford has worked to remove barriers that hamper Arkansas' rice and poultry producers.

Arkansas' 1st Congressional District, which Crawford represents, grows more rice than any other district in the country.

"What I've encouraged people to do is call your representative, call your congressman and congresswoman, your senator and let them know how you feel about this," he said.

Crawford has faced strong opposition from some members of Florida's congressional delegation; more than 1.3 million people of Cuban descent live in the Sunshine State, according to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center.

If there's a groundswell of support for easing trade restrictions, Crawford predicted lawmakers will listen to the voters.

"I just think the other 49 states ought to have a voice in this as well," he said.

Boozman, who is co-sponsoring the Senate version of the bill, said trade would be good for Arkansas' economy.

"We're talking about many, many millions of dollars in increased sales. It's a no-brainer in that regard," the lawmaker from Rogers said.

Individuals and businesses who extend credit to Cuba would bear the risk, he said.

"The legislation we're proposing doesn't obligate the United States government at all. Taxpayers aren't on the hook," he said.

Emmer faulted the White House, in part, for the lack of movement.

"I think the administration so far has been on the wrong side of history on this issue," he said.

Marshall said lawmakers should try to round up more co-sponsors, and argued that eliminating trade barriers benefits everybody.

"It's a win for the president. It's a win for agriculture. It's a win for the United States. It's a win for Cuba," he added.

Jose Ramon Cabanas, Cuba's ambassador to the United States, was on hand for Thursday's event.

Afterward, he said his country would welcome increased trade with Arkansas.

"We eat a lot of rice and poultry. Those are probably among the most important commodities that we import," he said.

Cabanas said he has a good relationship with Boozman and Crawford.

"They're always accessible and the door is open any time we go to their offices," he said.

Both lawmakers have been to Cuba. It's a trip, Cabanas said, he hopes other Arkansans will consider.

"Most people traveling to Cuba these days will tell you they have a good time," he said.

The U.S. and Cuba, Cabanas said, would benefit from better relations.

"We have many, many differences and we will have them for many years and probably forever," he said. "At the same time we have been able, in the last two or three years, to find common ground on many subjects. And that's where we should be focusing."

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Why African-American Doctors Are Choosing to Study Medicine in Cuba

In the countryside of western Havana, during the fall, rickety yellow buses carry first-year medical students from the Latin American School of Medicine. Wearing short-sleeved white smocks and stethoscopes, they go door to door, doing rounds, often speaking to their patients in broken Spanish. “Even people whose houses I wasn’t visiting sometimes would ask me to take their blood pressure, because they just saw me in the street,” Nimeka Phillip, an American who graduated from the school in 2015, told me.

The Latin American School of Medicine, or E.L.A.M., was established by the Cuban government, in 1999, after a series of natural disasters, including Hurricane Mitch, left vulnerable populations in Central America and the Caribbean in dire need of health care. This year, in the aftermath of hurricane season, hundreds of Cuban health workers, many of them E.L.A.M. graduates, will travel to some of the hardest-hit areas of the Atlantic to treat the injured and sick. All of the students who attend E.L.A.M. are international. Many come from Asia, Africa, and the United States. The school’s mission is to recruit students from low-income and marginalized communities, where they are encouraged to return, after they graduate, to practice medicine.

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In the U.S., black and Latino students represent approximately six per cent of medical-school graduates each year. By contrast, nearly half of E.L.A.M.’s American graduates are black, and a third are Latino. “You would never see those numbers” in the U.S., Melissa Barber, another American E.L.A.M. graduate, told me.

Barber is a program coördinator at the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization, in Harlem, which recruits American students for E.L.A.M. Applicants with college-level science backgrounds and the requisite G.P.A. go through an interview process with the organization. Those who make the cut are then recommended to E.L.A.M. The school accepted its first American applicants in 2001, a year after a delegation from the Congressional Black Caucus, whose leadership included Representatives Bennie Thompson and Barbara Lee, travelled to Cuba and held talks with the Ministry of Education about the need for doctors in rural black communities, and the financial obstacles that make it difficult for low-income and minority students to enroll in American medical schools. While some nations pay for their students to attend E.L.A.M., Fidel Castro decided that Americans, like Haitians and students from poor African countries, should attend for free.

Since 1987, no more than six per cent of medical students in the U.S. each year have come from families with poverty-level incomes. Meanwhile, the cost of medical school has skyrocketed; the median student debt for the class of 2016 was a hundred and ninety thousand dollars. Phillip, a first-generation college graduate, worked multiple jobs and took out loans to pay for her undergraduate degrees in public health and integrative biology, at the University of California, Berkeley. She hoped to study “stress- and poverty-related illness” in medical school, she told me, but the cost of tuition, along with the pressure that would come from being one of the few minority students in her class, discouraged her from applying.

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After she graduated, she came across an online listing for an I.F.C.O. event in San Jose, while researching alternatives to medical school. At the event, there were a number of E.L.A.M. graduates who offered testimonials, but she remembered being moved by Luther Castillo’s story in particular. After graduating from E.L.A.M., Castillo returned to his Afro-indigenous village, in Honduras, and built the area’s first free, community-run hospital. Phillip was impressed by his story, and by E.L.A.M.’s philosophy of offering a free education for students who pledged to practice medicine in low-income, medically underserved areas. After she applied and was accepted, she braced herself for her six-year odyssey in Cuba.

The child-mortality rate in Cuba is lower than it is in the U.S., and life expectancy in both countries is about the same, even though per-capita health-care spending in the United States is the highest in the world. In a certain way, Cuba has America to thank for this. The U.S.-imposed embargo and the dissolution of the Soviet Union led to an increase in the cost of medical supplies; facing a crisis, the Cuban government turned its attention to preventative care, seeking to eliminate much of the need for surgeries and expensive procedures by early detection.

The vast majority of Cuba’s medical students go into primary care. Many of them take up posts in consultorios—doctor-and-nurse teams that live in the neighborhoods in which they practice. In the United States, more and more graduates are choosing specialties—cardiology, radiology, urology—over primary care, which pays less. Besides driving up the cost of medical education, this has also exacerbated physician shortages in rural parts of the country. Today, sixty-four million Americans live in areas where there is only one primary-care physician for every three thousand people. By 2030, according to a study commissioned by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the United States will be short at least forty thousand doctors, and perhaps as many as a hundred thousand.

Medicare and Medicaid programs support residency trainings, and the National Health Service Corps awards grants and loans to medical students in exchange for service in needier regions. But, in 2016, only two hundred and thirteen students received an N.H.S.C. scholarship. According to Congresswoman Karen Bass, of California, a supporter of E.L.A.M., funding is the main problem—particularly under the current Presidential Administration. Trump’s budget for the 2019 fiscal year will cut funding for graduate medical education by forty-eight billion dollars. It is “embarrassing,” Bass said, that “Cuba educates our students for free.”

E.L.A.M. offered Phillip a chance to pursue medicine without incurring catastrophic debt. As she put it, she would graduate with the equivalent of car payments, while her peers in the United States would be saddled with the equivalent of mortgages. Although the school was lacking in creature comforts—the students slept in bunk beds; the hot water and electricity were unreliable; there was little access to the Internet or the phone—Phillip powered through. With help from family, friends, and an organization called Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba—which helps American students in Cuba prepare for their homecoming with scholarships, tutoring for U.S. exams, and connections to American medical networks—she returned home each summer, gaining experience at hospitals in Minneapolis, Oakland, and Washington, D.C.

In March of 2014, Phillip passed the U.S. medical-licensing exam, with one year of Cuban medical school left. In 2016, she was accepted to a residency program in family medicine at a hospital in Hendersonville, North Carolina. “It’s one thing to recruit people that have high skills,” Bryan Hodge, the director of the Hendersonville program, told me. “More unique is when you find people that really have the passion and heart for taking care of underserved patient populations. These are the people needed to close the health-disparities gap.” As Peter McConarty, a veteran family doctor who advises E.L.A.M. students, put it, “A medical student in Cuba would have to actively resist the idea that they were agents of public health and social justice. In the United States, you have to actively seek it out.”

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Cuba Plane Crash: Black Boxes under Investigation in U.S.

Cuban Minister of Transport, Adel Yzquierdo, informed today that the black boxes of the Boeing-737 aircraft of the Mexican company Damojh, which crashed on the Caribbean island on May 18, are being investigated in the United States.

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'We still do not know the causes, because the black boxes are in the United States, three of our people are also working there to know the problems that the plane could have, and that can take months,' Yzquierdo stressed at the Havana Convention Center.

We will contact the families once again to explain some things they should know, said the minister when speaking in the permanent work commission of the National Assembly of People's Power (Parliament).

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On May 18, a Boeing-737 aircraft of the Mexican company Damojh crashed at noon in Havana with 113 passengers and crew on board, leaving only one survivor who remains in critical condition and under observation.

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Díaz-Canel received U.S. Senator Jeff Flake and Google Executive Chairman

On Monday afternoon, the President of the Councils of State and of Ministers, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, received Republican Senator Jeff Flake and Google Executive Chairman, Eric Emerson Schmidt.

During the meeting they exchanged on the state of the bilateral relationship between Cuba and the United States, as well as potential areas of cooperation of mutual interest.

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The distinguished visitors were accompanied by H. E. Philip Goldberg, Chargé d'Affaires of the United States in Cuba. 

Participating on de the Cuban side were the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla and the Director General for U.S. Affairs of the Cuban Foreign Ministry, Carlos Fernández de Cossío Domínguez. 

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Trump’s blockade is to provoke regime change – Cuban Ambassador

Cuba’s National Assembly elected Miguel Diaz-Canel as the country’s President in April. Diaz-Canel followed Raul Castro who served two consecutive terms from 2008 when the health of his brother Fidel was in decline. Fidel Castro, who led the 1959 revolution that overthrew Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship and ruled the country since died in 2016. The Daily Mirror talked to Cuba’s Ambassador in Colombo, Elena Ramos Rodriguez, on what may be expected from the new leader from a post-revolution generation, US President Donald Trump’s hardened policy towards Cuba, its effects on the Cuban people and Cuba’s response to the intensified economic blockade imposed by the US government.   

 
Cuba’s new President Miguel Diaz-Canel was born a year after the 1959 revolution, representing a relatively younger generation of politicians. Does this generational shift point to a change in Cuba’s style of government in years ahead?

I want to highlight the significance of the last session of the Cuban parliament, on April 18-19 when Mario Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez was elected the new President of the Council of State and President of the Council of Ministers. I think the new leader will continue the revolutionary process, will continue the development of our country, the development of our Socialism. Cuban people expresstheir support for this electoral process. The people elect the members of Parliament, the Parliament elects the Council of State, and the Council of State elects the president. This process comes with the support of the people because a majority - 85.65% attended the polls to elect their representation in parliament, from each municipality. Voting is voluntary … if you vote it means you support (the process).   


Diaz-Canel’s predecessor Raul Castro had started introducing certain changes- reducing the size of the state sector, encouraging more private enterprise, loosening some controls etc. with benefit to the economy. Will the new President continue on this trajectory?

Yes. The Cuban government and people are all working on updating the Cuban economic model. It is a complex process. It’s changing not because of pressure from outside but for Cuban society, to establish the economic and social guidance. It is a broad process, with many meetings with people in their workplaces, residential places etc. In Cuba, the programme does not change with each president. The guidelines are adopted with the opinion of all the population – in different ways they participate in the process.   

"The Parliament elects the Council of State, and the Council of State elects the president. This process comes with the support of the people because a majority - 85.65% attended the polls to elect their representation in parliament, from each municipality  "

Former US President Barack Obama had started a process of normalization of Cuba-US relations, signalled by re-opening diplomatic missions in the two countries. Under Trump, this process is being reversed, and the economic blockade is being intensified. What will Cuba’s strategy be, to cope with this situation?

I think Obama’s years demonstrated that Cuba and the US can live and co-exist in a civilized way. Interactions between both sides show that Cuba and the US can exist, respecting our differences and cooperating, for the benefit of both countries and peoples, at the same time. Wherever there is an opportunity, we can cooperate.   

Opportunity such as …?

To stop drug trafficking, terrorism, illegal immigration. Intelligence is not the interest of one country – it’s for both countries. We share maritime borders. We have to cooperate for example in maritime rescue, to save people. Or to avoid contamination of our maritime waters. Cuba wants to continue negotiating with the US government, but on conditions of equality and respect for our sovereignty. Cuba will not resign any of its principles. Principles are non-negotiable.   


But the fact is that you have a US President whose attitude is belligerent. How will you face this situation?

We have to face the new measures. In November last year the US Departments of State, Treasury and Commerce issued new provisions and regulations to implement and strengthen the blockade against Cuba - a week after the Nov. 1stvote in the UN General Assembly on the necessity to lift the blockade. These measures were in a new executive order of the President called “National Security Presidential Memorandum on Strengthening the Policy of the US towards Cuba.” They restrict travel of American citizens to Cuba, restrict commerce between the two countries. During Obama’s time it was more flexible on some issues, but the blockade was still there, especially in the financial/ banking sector.   

In 2016 the US abstention (during the UN vote on lifting the blockade) was a hopeful moment. These measures confirm the regress of bilateral relations as a result of the decisions of the government of Donald Trump. It is also important to say, these measures ignore US public opinion of about 75% which is a great majority, and the international community, and of the Cuban immigrants in the US. The majority of Cuban immigrants want normal relations. Only a small group in Florida want to continue the blockade. This transformation ignores the majority of the international community. On Nov. 1st 2017 for the 26th consecutive occasion, the resolution on “The necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the USA on Cuba” was approved by the General Assembly of the UN, with 191 votes in favour and two against: the US and Israel, confirming once again the absolute international rejection of this policy. Cuba will continue to present the resolution as long as the embargo is in place. Unfortunately the resolution is not binding. But it’s a good step to demonstrate that the international community supports Cuba.   

"MediCuba, the company that imports and exports medical products, received a communication from the supplier Lindmed Trade of Spain, saying it could not supply the antibiotic Ciprofloxacin Lactate because the manufacturer Claris Otsuka refused to sell the goods because Cuba was subject to sanctions imposed by the US"


The UN Secretary General in July last year presented a report, at the request of the members of the General Assembly, on the implementation of this resolution. Cuba said “the accumulated losses caused by the embargo during nearly six decades it has been in place amount to US$ 822 billion.” Can you give an example of how this translates into deprivation in the day to day lives of the Cuban people?

The blockade affects all fields – business, health, education, agriculture. To give an example – in March 2017, MediCuba, the company that imports and exports medical products, received a communication from the supplier Lindmed Trade of Spain, saying it could not supply the antibiotic Ciprofloxacin Lactate because the manufacturer Claris Otsuka refused to sell the goods because Cuba was subject to sanctions imposed by the US.  

Ciprofloxacin Lactate is a broad spectrum antibiotic used for adults and children in the treatment of respiratory ailments. Also for skin, soft tissue, bones and joints affected by bacteria. This is an antibiotic used in all hospitals. This affects the health of our people not because the government doesn’t give the resources but because we cannot buy from the supplier.   



  • I think the new leader will continue the revolutionary process, will continue the development of our country, the development of our Socialism

  • The ending of the embargo was approved by the the UN, with 191 votes in favour and two against

  • Cuba produces nickel. The company was unable to export 3,500 tons of it, produced in 2016 because they could not find a bank...

  • The blockade is the main obstacle to the development of our country.

  • The US wants to provoke a change of regime, by provoking anger of the people through shortages, by depriving them of food, medication.  

  • Cuba appreciates support provided by Sri Lanka in its fight against the US embargo.

  • Our policy is to give what we have. Others give what they don’t use. Fifty-five per cent of state resources is allocated for budgeted activity


Could you briefly explain the extra-territorial aspect of the embargo, how third parties – other states - are punished for having transactions with Cuba? An example?

The case I just mentioned is also a good example of the extra-territorial impact. The supplier, the Spanish company cannot trade with Cuba. They too are affected. Legally they should be able to trade with Cuba. Also, many other companies have been sanctioned, fined, for doing business with Cuba.   

To give another example, Cuba produces nickel. The company was unable to export 3,500 tons of nickel sulphide produced in 2016 because they could not find a bank that would open a Letter of Credit. The loss to the Cuban economy was $23,600,000.   

In June 2016 the Netherlands mail and parcels company TNT returned to the Consulate General of Cuba in Madrid, two postal consignments addressed to the embassies of Cuba in China and Indonesia containing passports of Cubans living abroad. The company claimed that it had returned the consignments owing to corporate instructions related to the US embargo.   


The rest of the world supports Cuba on the need to end the embargo, which is in violation of the UN Charter and international law. Can you explain briefly, what is the problem the US has with Cuba?

The blockade is the main obstacle to the development of our country. The US wants to provoke a change of regime, by provoking anger of the people through shortages, by depriving them of food, medication etc. They want a regime change favourable to the US. It didn’t happen because the Cuban people stayed brave. This policy satisfies only the interests of a small minority of the American and Cuban-American extreme right-wing of South Florida, whose interest is to reverse the process of normalization of bilateral relations. It is a violation of human rights in general. We have a good economy but it would be better if we didn’t have the blockade. Tourism is greatly affected. People like to visit Cuba, last year we had four million visitors. Imagine if there was no blockade! American citizens are not allowed to travel to Cuba as tourists, it’s prohibited. They need a special licence from the Treasury.   

"I think Obama’s years demonstrated that Cuba and the US can live and co-exist in a civilized way. Interactions between both sides show that Cuba and the US can exist, respecting our differences and cooperating, for the benefit of both countries and peoples, at the same time. Wherever there is an opportunity, we can cooperate"


Cuba sends its professionals like goodwill ambassadors to all parts of the world – doctors, teachers, artists, agriculture experts - demonstrating the high level of culture and education it has achieved for its people, in spite of the problems caused by its big neighbour. What is the secret of this achievement?

Our policy is ‘internationalist.’ One of the main principles in our relations with other countries is that we share what we have. If we can provide doctors, we do that. Our policy is to give what we have. Others give what they don’t use. Fifty-five per cent of state resources is allocated for budgeted activity such as education, public health, social security, pensions. That’s why there is a high standard. We believe you must support everybody. You cannot have homeless people. A mother who cannot work because her child has a disability will be provided with a government pension. It is a policy that demonstrates that even a poor nation that has not too many resources - if it uses resources for the welfare of the people - can grow its human capital, and improve living standards of the people, despite major challenges it faces. This is, maybe, our ‘secret!’   


Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba after the revolution and (in the words of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in his condolence message on the death of Fidel Castro) “Cuba has been a great friend Sri Lanka could count on.” How can the Cuba-Sri Lanka relationship be taken forward?

A. Sri Lanka and Cuba have historic bonds of friendship and cooperation. Sri Lanka established diplomatic relations in 1959 after the triumph of the revolution, at the very beginning. The first step was the visit of Che Guevara to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka and Cuba both entered the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) in the same year, 1961. Cuba received the presidency of NAM from Sri Lanka in 1979. We have a long history of cooperation in sports, education, health, agriculture. At this moment we are working on areas of pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. In June, a delegation from Sri Lanka visited Cuba to follow up on implementation of an MoU between the ministries of Science and Technology of the two countries. Last year a Cuban expert visited Sri Lanka to share expertise on the control of dengue. We are also working on registering in Sri Lanka a Cuban product for the treatment of diabetic foot ulcers. It has an efficiency of over 80%, many people have saved their legs, avoiding amputation. Cuba sincerely appreciates the support provided by Sri Lanka in its fight against the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed by the United States against Cuba for almost 60 years. On Nov. 1, once again Sri Lanka voted in favour of the Cuban revolution against the blockade in the General Assembly of the United Nations.  

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Cuba, USA Announce Direct and Permanent Postal Exchange

Cuba and the United States agreed today to implement the permanent and direct postal exchange between both countries.

The announcement made by the Correos de Cuba company states that the decision was adopted after the implementation of the Pilot Plan for more than one year for direct exchange between the two nations, as announced in March 2016.

According to the Correos of Cuba Business Group and the Portal Service of the United States, the service in its current format began on April 16, 2018 and takes into account the technical, operational and security requirements identified by the two sides during the execution of the Pilot Plan.

The restoration of this service allows direct mails between Cuba and the United States, parcels, and express courier, through the post offices of both countries.

Through the website www.correos.cu, those interested can obtain all information they require about services, rates and regulations, the note of the Institutional Communication Department of the entity states.

At the same time, people can track and monitor shipments with registration code, among other benefits, and includes the possibility of downloading and having the website on Android mobile devices.

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Cuba-U.S. Collaboration in a New Era of Change

WASHINGTON, May 31, 2018 /PRNewswire/ -- Cuban Ambassador Jose R. Cabañas Rodríguez Ph.D. will kick off an event on June 4 that considers how the U.S. and Cuba can work together at an uncertain political time, marking one of his first public appearances since Miguel Díaz-Canel succeeded Raúl Castro as president of Cuba last month. The event, co-hosted by the nonprofits Center for International Policy (CIP) and Ocean Doctor, focuses on environmental sustainability and historic preservation, long cited as among the most successful areas of collaboration between Cuba and the U.S. even before the normalization of diplomatic relations in 2014.

A range of panelists will highlight recent successful conservation and historic preservation efforts in Cuba. Also featured will be the release of a comprehensive new report by Ocean Doctor and CIP entitled, A Century of Unsustainable Tourism in the Caribbean: Lessons Learned and Opportunities for Cuba. "The past 50 years have seen unprecedented environmental degradation in the Caribbean, including the loss of 50 percent of its coral cover," says Dr. David E. Guggenheim, founder and president of Ocean Doctor. Landscape modification due to tourism development is a main driver of habitat loss, and historic and cultural resources have also felt the impact. Meanwhile, Cuba has followed a markedly different path and, as a result, still possesses healthy ecosystems and a vibrant, authentic culture. With mounting pressures of tourism, the report examines the unique opportunity Cuba has to create a sustainable future.

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The event, open to the public (RSVP required), will be held on Monday, June 4th 1-5pm at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1779 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20036. Details and an RSVP form can be found at: https://oceandoctor.org/june4event. The sustainable tourism report will be available for download at 9am on June 4th from: https://oceandoctor.org/tourismreport

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This event and the report are part of the Cuba-U.S. Sustainability Partnership (CUSP), a project of the Center for International Policy, Ocean Doctor and Robert Muse & Associates, in consultation with Cuban governmental and nongovernmental agencies, to support Cuba's efforts to chart a sustainable course in the face of political changes and economic pressures.

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3 Kayakers Paddle From Cuba to Florida to Promote Open Borders

Cuba might seem like a world away from the United States, but in fact it’s only 113 miles from Key West to Havana across the Straits of Florida.

President Obama eased the US embargo in 2016, creating a path to diplomacy between the two nations. But President Trump reinstated some of these sanctions in 2017, eroding the short progress that had been made.

Which brings us to three friends: Andy Cochrane, Luke Walker and Wyatt Roscoe. On May 29, 2017, the trio landed their kayaks on Stock Island in Key West 27 hours, 12 minutes and 30 seconds after leaving Havana. It is the first documented “unsupported” single kayak crossing from Havana to Key West.

ASN caught up with Cochrane, who is recuperating from blisters, callouses and chaffing, to see how Tropical Storm Alberto altered their plans, what it was like on the open water and what they hope comes of their efforts.

How did Tropical Storm Alberto change your plans for the excursion?

It was a little bit bigger than we thought (wind and waves wise). Overall though, we got somewhat lucky with how it all played out. It was supposed to hit in Havana on Thursday, but it didn’t really hit until Friday. So essentially, we were dealing with it the entire time. It was cooling down and we knew the waves might lie down a little bit after the storm passed, but it just sat in the Gulf for a long time. It didn’t push north, so it meant the wind started going north, which was super helpful for us.

How do you know Wyatt and Luke?

They grew up in Jackson and have known each other for a long time. I’ve paddled more with Wyatt when we both lived in the Bay together five or six years ago.

You guys attempted the paddle last year also, right?

We did pretty much the same thing last year, unsupported. I mean there’s a support boat, but we don’t interact with it at all. It’s a contingency if things go south. We attempted and got hit by a big storm and some food poisoning last year. And pulled out less than halfway. Wyatt paddled the furthest last year, he got some 40 miles in.

So you learned some lessons from last year then?

Nutrition, pacing and a whole litany of things. Overall, we gave ourselves a lot better chance. And we had to follow a game plan but also adjust it along the way. The single biggest variable was weather. At any given time, it’s going to be a lot different how you handle that and adjust for it.

We had a pretty developed nutrition plan – we had a coach who was helping us. She’s an elite distance runner, 100-miler and ex-Olympian, and very talented runner. So she coached us in how to handle 25 hours of straight activity. The plan of how to eat and when to eat. It could be as short as every half hour or every two or three hours we’d stop to eat. But we had it dialed enough to where it didn’t take you that long. Each boat had close to 25 liters of water in it, and mostly goo in powder form mixed in. During the day when it was really hot, it’s really hard to eat and get calories. But you still need carbs, so we were getting most of our carbs by drinking.

Every once in a while we’d stop and eat bigger meals of pasta and peanut butter and jelly. With most of those, the key is to actually eating like a 12 year old. White bread, nothing processed, you don’t want your body to expend energy putting anything down. So you don’t get any protein or fat, it’s just really simple carbs and sugars.

Did you guys have any serious issues this trip?

No big issues. All three of us did puke a little bit, which was similar to last year because it’s just hard to keep food down. I think it’s just heat and exhaustion and your body not wanting it. That became a big issue, just having enough energy. We have blisters and callouses and chaffing to show for that much time in salt water.

What was it like being on the open water like that for so long?

Paddling for that long is surreal. A wave of ups and downs, much like many people describe an ultra marathon. You’re in control of your mind, but not many other factors, like the weather. Our coach, Magda Boulet, reminded us to “control the controllables” and let everything else go.

We had moments of pure bliss – surfing waves, riding a high, and moments of stress or worry that we wouldn’t make it, and almost everything in between. Ultimately the trust between the three of us was what we relied on, paddling through a stormy night and into the next morning.

Did it give you any sense of what refugees attempting this venture may have gone through?

The paddle gave us a little taste, yes. I think we understand the struggle a little bit better, at least in a physical sense – and some sense of what it might have felt like to finally land in the U.S.

The time in Havana and with Cubans in Miami helped a lot, too, as far as understanding what political refugees have gone through for the hope of the American dream. I’m definitely not saying we’re all-knowing, but I do think we were successful in opening our minds to what the Straits mean to so many refugees.

Tell me about the project’s goals.

The goal when you do anything this big and dumb is to challenge ourselves. I think the question of what are you going to feel and how are you going to deal with that is pretty cool to take on and experience. What are you going to feel like when you’re 12 hours in and hate your life? Are we going to be able to support each other and pick each other up when someone goes through one of those moments?

The bigger one to us was that we developed some pretty cool relationships with Cuban-Americans and feel like this is an opportunity for us as experienced paddlers to use this skill and knowledge to advocate for open borders.

At its broadest extent, to respect people of different backgrounds. We wanted to raise the voice of past and future immigrants. Cuba is this weird geographically close country, but people consider it so far away, and sometimes third world.

You mentioned a film project, any details on that yet?

The film is still super early – we are planning a 6-8 minute short doc about our time in Havana, the paddle and the inspiration … all tied together with stories from three actual Cuban refugees.

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